Friday, 23 June 2017

Happiness versus contentedness

Today I want to talk about the concept of happiness versus contentedness. I think most people would know what you meant if you discussed being happy but I feel that often we confuse happiness with contentedness. For me happiness is a much more fleeting emotion, centred around our current situation. If we eat a piece of chocolate we often feel a high, an upwards lift, but it is often tempered with a negate longer term effect. Contentedness, on the other hand, is a much more steadied emotion, calm and neither up nor down. It is also much less direct and it's cause can often be more difficult to tie down.

So how does happiness come about? Well, its roots seem to be in the pre-frontal cortex, the youngest part of the human brain. There is where a lot of rational thought occurs and is the area in which we spend most of consciousness. It is also the area of our brain over which we can exert the most control. We can easily change what we are immediately thinking about or doing, so we can make ourselves immediately happy. One of the best example of this can be seen with substances such as drugs and alcohol. Both have been known to numb negative emotions and create a positive sense of happiness. The same can be said of sexual promiscuity with a newly aquainted stranger. Again it may cause an immediate sense of happiness but the effects of such can be quite negative to our longer term goals.

In contrast to this contentedness is formed, in my opinion, in the older parts of the brain that deal with longer term emotions and what we would call the sub-conscious. Here is where a lot of our anxieties, troubles and any underlying issues tend to reside. These bubble up at random times in response to things that don't often seem to make much sense. This is also why we refer to not dealing with negative emotions as "burying" them. We don't deal with them immediately, to avoid our un-happiness, and instead allow them to enter our deeper sub-conscious brain. Because contentedness comes from a much deeper part of our brain, it can feel much more difficult to get a handle on. Cause and effect seems much less entwined and the emotions arising from this part of our brain can often seem quite chaotic. What created them is often so removed from their eventual symptom that we feel like the brain is acting in a random way.

In short I believe that we can have a happy young brain and a happy old brain (A painful neurological simplification, but a useful one none the less). If we feed our young brain mental chocolate it will be happy but paradoxically this could be creating a situation in which our old brain is becoming increasingly worried, upset and anxious. The opposite is also often true in that to make our old brain happy we have to focus on longer term contentedness, often to the detriment of our immediate happiness. A good example of this is a task such as garden-work. We cut the grass and pull up weeds because the garden has gotten to the point where it needs done. It's not a task we particularly enjoy (Although, admittedly, I do now) but we do it because we know that if we leave it, we will end up in a worse situation and the stress will cause us to be in a state that is not content. The immediate happiness of watching our favourite TV show or doing something else enjoyable is tempered with the longer term discontent. To quote the bible, "When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things." Children, almost pathologically, seek out happiness with little thought towards contentedness. As adults we try to explain to them why it's important to not just eat ice cream all the time or watch TV until their eyes glaze over. The truth is that we are often so ill informed of our own discontent that we are not best placed to actually explain to them why this is important. With a little work to understand though, we can be.


Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Name change!

So recently I decided to start using DistroKid to get my music out there into the bigger, wider world. It's a great service that will let you upload as many releases as you do in a year for a flat rate fee per year. It uploades to all the usual suspects, iTunes, Spotify etc. Seems great right? Well it is until you discover that your stage name "Pipo" is shared with a French Salsa musician who has a larger fanbase than you and thus dwarfs all your releases. Not so good! With that in mind, and to avoid any potential legal matters, I have decided to re-brand. My new name will be "Pipo Animatronic". This should be easy for people to find, has a nice ring to it and fits well how I feel about myself a lot of the time. I often feel like i'm more of an imitation human, trying to understand the world around me, while getting it wrong a lot of that time, and that fits well the image of an animatronic puppet.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Envy

Sometimes in life it's difficult not to get carried away by wanting things and not really understanding why. What you want could be something material like a new car or even something situational like wanting to be able to do what someone else is doing at a given time. We desire what we don't currently have but often this is actually just the product of unchecked envy. A little envy can be useful if it drives us to better our situation but often it can be problematic and lead to greed and also to following paths that aren't good for us. That's the key factor that most people ignore when dealing with this, the other variable in the situation - other people.

Let's say that you go into work and someone in your team has a beautiful shiny new ferrari. They have been saving for months and months and they just want to tell you all about and how great it is. You listen intently but start to get annoyed, you wish it was you with the new car. You wish it was you with that proud smile. This is because you are only seeing the present, the other person's happiness, the fact they get to drive home in it tonight. What you don't see is how long they probably had to save, what they had to go without, what they will have to do to keep it running and well maintained. It also might not bring you the same happiness it is bringing them. Your situation is different after all. Ironically it's a danger of only living in the present and not thinking about the future or the past.

Another key place that I see this type of thinking (and I suffer from this sometimes as well, much to my frustration) is when people are dealing with their careers and creative pursuits. They want that promotion, that bigger fanbase, that perfect sound. They see an artist playing a style of music and want to go home and start doing that as well as their own stuff. The problem is that this can lead to following hundreds of different paths when a lot of them aren't necessarily even correct or compatible with the life the person has chosen for themselves. None of the paths are bad, but they doesn't make them right either. What if that artists dedicates 8 hours a day to doing just that style? What if the person getting promoted is working 3 hours every night after work because they really love the job? What if you aren't prepared to do that or would even be capable of it? Well maybe then it's worth considering what path is your correct path, rather than what path you would like to have right now. The question isn't "Would I like to have that?", it's "How much work would I prepared to put in to get to that point and keep going?" and also "What would I have to give up to get that?".

I'm not Steve Jobs biggest fan, that's for sure, but there is an old interview where he talks about Apple's strengths and brings up one point about this area. I'm not saying he's some guru or source of wisdom but there is always a danger in ignoring everything someone says just because you don't agree with the vast majority of their outlooks, so i'm including it here. He states that Apple's biggest strength was their ability to decide which things to pursue and which things to ignore, even if they were good opportunities. I think that's key, it's not about the easy things to say no to, everyone can do those. It's about having the discipline to say that some things aren't for you, so you can work on the things you really want, which are right for you and knowing how to recognise those things.


Sunday, 29 January 2017

Giving up on apple

That's it, a step too far, i've had enough! I am going back to Windows and Linux.

Okay, click-bait aside, let's talk about this rationally. Basically i've been getting progressively more annoyed with apple's direction for a while now and here's why.

1. Lack of investment in pro/creative products and software

The mac pro and to a similar extent the Macbook pro have seen very little in the way of genuine upgrades recently. The Macbook Pro, following it's most recent upgrade, is now an under-powered, over-priced faux-luxury machine and simply doesn't compete with the PC options on any front. The laptop options in it's price range are both numerous, and, generally speaking, better value. The Mac Pro is basically a product no-one doing anything professionally actually wants now. It hasn't been upgraded in any meaningful way since for years. It's essentially just a halo product but it's not aspirational for anyone other than people who are strongly tied into the i-world. Apple's products used to be the best built, the best running etc and they simply aren't keeping up anymore with the other options out there. I understand that Apple has optimised the OS to work well on the hardware but there is only so far you can push it before it's simply a smokescreen. Does Final Cut render faster than Adobe Premier Pro for a lesser spec'd Mac to PC? Sure. Does it offer the same feature set and usability of Premier Pro? No, not even close and that's the key point here. If you want to use Apple products you have to think their way and utilise the system in exactly the method they intended. They may think differently but often they think too simply to be any use beyond the trivial.

Back in the day Steve Jobs used to tell everyone that Apple was the company that cared about what they made, that took pride in the small details and doing a good job, a better job than it's competitors. If that's still the case, why are they encouraging a sort of dumb, blank mind, stupidity amongst their customers? One click functionality is great if you nail what the customer actually wants to happen with that click. If, however, you simply take away all the options and leave the one-click functionality as the only option you create a system that is so inflexible that it really is just a toy. Yes if you want to invest a lot of money into the various parts of the ecosystem, on a regular basis, then you can have a very nice toy but nothing more. In short, Apple now concerns itself with the trivial, not the pro or the creative user.

2. The price

What the hell are Apple on thinking they can get away with the current pricing. For years and years Apple were the hyper expensive alternative to traditional PCs. They had barely any market share until they started pricing themselves competitively. This happened around the time they switched to intel based processors and anyone that was around at that time will recall their carefully detailed argument about the fact that being on Intel would allow them to LOWER prices due to the standardised architecture and lower production costs than IBM equivalents. Now it seems they want to go back to the old world, charging extortionate amounts for machines that don't really offer any advantage. There is no doubt that in my mind that almost every product Apple now sells is overpriced. Apart from the $300 picture book of course, which represents brilliant value for money................

3. The focus on the mobile world

For years now Apple seem to have had their entire focus on the mobile market. iPhones and iPads are fine as a business proposition but not if you do it at the expense of your entire pro market. I already mentioned that Apple's focus has been on the trivial use case and this represents exactly that movement. Can you make a nice picture book on your iPad? sure. Whip out that same iPad in a studio recording situation as your main mixing platform and chances are you are not going to get paid for that session.

4. Stability

I used to use Mac OSX because it was the nicest, most stable OS around. Having moved back to Windows I can honestly say that's not the case anymore. Windows is behaving itself really pretty well and on those few occasions that it crashes I can usually figure out what went wrong and actually apply some logic to fix the problem. I grew up using windows machines and it's nice to go back to a world that seems both familiar and to be applying some more rationality to it's problem solving.

5. Bizarre software design

It's only going back to PC that i'm starting to get a sense of just how warped my perception of the whole computing world had become by using OSX and Apple products. Everything on a Mac is something other than what you are used to and i'd just gotten familiar with this weird way of working. It's nice not having to "quit" my application after i've closed it. It's nice having a menu with all my apps available if I forget to put something into the dock or quick launch area. I appreciate the familiarity of "Save as copy" over "Duplicate". Everything just feels like it makes sense again. I have to put more work into some things sure, but that work is rewarded by knowing the system i've put in place and understanding why it is the way it is. On Mac you think you understand what's going on and then suddenly you find that you've once again stumbled into some 7th circle of Hell reserved only for those who like they're entire project structures buried inside unreadable file/bundle/other random container that changes with each release. Everything about the way Mac works with applications is crow-barred into this strange way of thinking that OSX has and it's not until you step back from the edge of the cliff that you see just how messed up it actually is.

Friday, 21 October 2016

On being mid-project and the fascination of stepping stones

One of the most difficult times for me, personally, on any project is the middle section. You have some stuff done and it all seems like it's fitting into place but you know there is still a long road ahead until it's finished and often you don't see how to get there clearly. I find this time really difficult and I have a habit of comparing the current state of a project to finished examples. Most of the time this comparison is not exactly favourable on the unfinished work.

For me this whole stage of the project process is a little bit like the infamous scientific proof where one section simply reads "magic happens here". That "magic" is this middle part of the project or more specifically it's the transition between the middle section and some beautiful end state. At some point it stops being a middle of a project and becomes the beginning of the end. The home stretch, the last lap.

My main issue with this process is mental, it's the mental malaise that comes with comparing to finished work and not knowing how to get the current project to that state. Even if I do know how to get there, that can still be difficult because it doesn't feel like it's possible to get to that end state. I can genuinely start to feel depressed about the fact that I don't seem to be any closer and can't get past that middle ground and over the "magic" bridge into a clear path to the goal. Recently though there are two techniques that I've been using to combat this.

The first technique is something that I call current-state-mindfulness. This is the mental act of trying to take delight in the current stage of the process. If I am recording guitars then I am trying to really enjoy recording them, geek out and get really into it. Find the joy in mic placement, amp selection and all the other stuff that goes along with it. To quote Ze Frank "Try not to view the current state as just a stepping stone to something else, and if it is then try to become fascinated by the shape of the stone".

My second technique is cathartic side projects. These are basically projects that aren't what I would consider core to my main goal or are styles that I don't really particularly have anything to add to but they make me happy to create. Recently i've been working on a serious of metal tracks under an EP called Adrenaline Fuel. These have no vocals and I set up the basic mix of these in a pre-production stage before I started. The goal of them is to enjoy making them but also to allow me to have something musical that has a quick turnaround. I don't spend days agonising over the mix or this sound or that, I just make them some good-ish and then release them. The point is that finishing them gets me through that mid-track malaise. I often use them as a method of getting a break from something that is much more involved or mentally taxing. They also don't sound bad at all which is a nice aside. I often listen back to them just for the fun of it. It's almost free-ing to listen to something i've made and not criticise it.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Scratch tracks and recording with a different sound

So recently I have been experimenting with recording tracks with a different sound to that which I intend to have in the final mix. The reason for this is that I'm trying to separate my concerns when it comes to the sound versus the performance. When I record guitar I like to record with a very bass heavy, muddy, oversaturated tone. Why? Well quite frankly because I play better with that sound. I grew up playing guitars in my bedroom with no other instruments and I got used to the sound of the guitar taking up all the frequency spectrum because I had no other instruments to play with it. When I play with that type of sound I get a really good performance because it feels natural to me. The problem I have been finding though is that this isn't always the best sound when it comes to mix time. In particular I struggle to get the drums and guitars to gel without muddying up the entire mix. It occurred to me that what I really want to do is record with the tone I like but have the actual tone be something more fitted to the track. The way I handle this is to record a dry version of the guitar input to the daw and then re-record the amp tracks, from this dry tone, later. I monitor through my usual guitar setup so what I hear while i'm recording is my familiar tone. This is re-amping as we all know and love and nothing spectacular. What to me was the revelation was the idea that I didn't have to actually record in anything like the tone I planned on having in the end mix. For a start the tone I like to record with is a Marshall and the track I was working on ended up using a Mesa Boogie. This got me wondering if other guitarists have this same problem of hearing a good tone as something that is virtually unusable when it comes to mix time, or whether this is just a very peculiar affliction on my part?

I remember listening to an interview with Celldweller and Blue Stahli where they both talked about making demo versions of tracks, and then changing them later. They use crappy sounds to begin with to get the idea down and then work on the better version later. I find this really interesting because it is exactly what i'm discovering as a way to work, you are treating the different stages of the process as separate. Writing is writing and producing is producing.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Working to a timed plan

One of the time management techniques that I have been fond of for quite a while now is setting out what I intend to do in each day in a mind-map. It's sort of a chore list, I guess, but has things on it like "work on music track" or "do exercise". The main idea was that I would check off the items on it when I finished them each day. This went through several iterations along with various tweaks but I just couldn't find a method of working or set of tasks that I could get done consistently. There was always something that got left off the list or just didn't get completed. This was both disconcerting and quite frustrating. I felt that the list of items was achievable, but no matter how much I paired it down I just couldn't finish it on any given day. How could this be so difficult?

Some time passed, struggling with this method of working, and I read a book called "The way we're working isn't working" by Tony Schwartz which laid out a lot of things about work and productivity. I don't agree with every point the book makes but a lot of them do seem very sensible. One of its main points was the idea that human beings have a well of will power each day that can be both replenished and withdrawn from when required. Every decision we make in a day takes some energy out of this well but decisions that require a lot of work on our part, against some resistance, are particularly draining. As such this brought me to realise that even though I had a plan for what I wanted to do with a day, the act of having to decide to begin doing an activity at any given time was actually draining a lot of my will-power. In short it was actually making the tasks more difficult as I was already depleted when starting them. The problem was that even though I had a set list of what I want to do on a day, I hadn't defined WHEN I wanted to do these things, other than on that day. It's the old problem of starting, but I had made it so I had to "decide" to start tasks lots of times throughout the day and often this meant stopping something else, making the decision twice as hard.

As such I decided that instead I would look at what I had planned each day and actually make a time plan. I set out what each block of time was going to be for and had it planned out for all the hours I intended to be productive during the day and for each day of the week. The difference? Well pretty astounding so far. Before doing this my productivity was sparse and fairly spasmodic. Sometimes I would gets lots done but often I would just not start or only do 10 minutes here or there, usually with not the greatest results. The first week of trying this new method, I did 8 hours over the course of two days and was really happy with the results. The week after, the same again and this week so far has been the same yet again. That's a whole lot of productivity for me! Probably more than i've ever managed consistently in my entire life (without making myself sick). I'm hoping this will help to keep things moving forward. Sometimes when I have these nice ideas I find it hard to stick with them, so it should be interesting to see if this time is different. The signs so far though are very good.